The Press and “Matters of Public Interest”

July 29, 2010

Give the New York Times at least a little credit for editorial discretion.

Last week, in a note to its readers accompanying the release of the first installment of nearly 90,000 classified documents, it claimed that it had ” taken care not to publish information that would harm national security interests.”

Well thank goodness we have the editorial board of the New York Times around to make critical judgements for us on issues of  national security.

By now everyone knows that the paper, alongside seven other international newspapers, was the recipent of documents from the website known as WikiLeaks, which specializes in obtaining classified information that the government does not want made public.  The documents, in this case,  offer information about the U.S. war in Afghanistan which purportedly illuminate the U.S. government’s  military planning and decision making processes over a five year period between 2005-09.

The New York Times justified the release of the documents by asserting that  ” There are times when the information is of significant public interest,  and this is one of those times.”

By what authority does the paper gauge “matters of public interest? ”

And who, we should all wonder, made the editorial board of the New York Times the arbiter of what is or what is not in the ambit of this country’s national security interests?

Those are questions the News York Times and other national newspapers rarely answer with any precision, if at all.  Rather, their conduct over the past decade has demonstrated a wilful contempt of  the U.S.government’s stated view of national security interests and a repeated failure to accede to the demands of successive administrations to keep national security materials well under wraps.

On December 16, 2005, Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, experienced  investigative reporters at the Timesblew open the NSA wiretapping scheme, under the same justification of public interest.   They followed that performance with  a report on June 23, 2006  focusing on the disclosure of the government’s SWIFT program –  an international effort, led by the United States, designed to monitor the financial transactions of terrorist organizations. 

But things are not always as they seem at the New York Times.

As to the first incident, commentator Gabriel Schoenfeld in Necessary Secrets: National Security, The Media and the Rule of Law ably demonstrates that it was neither “matters of public interest”  nor concerns for individual privacy that stood as the prime motivations for the Times to publish Lichtblau and Blau’s original story on the NSA.  It was, rather, a determination not to be scooped by its own reporters who were both writing books at the time on the Bush Administration’s anti-terror campaign.  The eventual publication of those books  – Lichtblau’s Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice  and Risen’s State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration  soon revealed not a balanced examination of the efficacy of the Bush Administration’s counter terrorism campaign but a vitriolic contempt for the Bush Administration itself and a ruthless demonization – and throughly prejudiced – attack on its counter-terrorism measures. It cast into significant doubt the reasons for the exposure of the scheme.

As for the SWIFT program revelations, no legitimate reason was ever offered by the New York Times for the necessity of disclosing the program. In fact in a letter to readers the paper’s editor, Bill Keller, admitted that ” no serious abuses of privacy had been identified.” Rather, he stated, the article’s publication was a means of protecting the public against only potential violations by the Bush Administration:

  ” We remain convinced,”  he wrote, ” that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest “

In other words, the editor of the foremost and arguably the most influential newspaper in the country, believes that it is incumbent on journalists such as himself to determine ” matters of public interest ” that could have a  potential  bearing on the security of U.S.citizens.

But who elected or appointed such men to make these kind of decisions for us?   Who gave sanction to these self appointed tribunes to wrest from our elected leaders and our military personnel ( men and women, after all, in whom we repose our trust and confidence by fiat, to protect us) the authority to pass judgement on vital issues of national security? 

The answer, of course,  is no one.   The press simply deigns to itself such a right, even if the U.S. Constitution (through the First Amendment)  remains silent on the issue and abundant legislation ( including the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Comint Act of 1950 – both of which have sections which expressly focus on the published disclosure of classified  information)  and more than 200 years of court decisions have repeatedly stymied the release of documents which the government regards as having a bearing on public safety.

Such editorial presumption was illustrated by Keller in his June 23, 2006 letter:

” And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.”

He is certainly not alone in considering the enshrined principle of freedom of the press as a blank check given to an unelected body of self appointed potentates to pass judgement on what is and what is not safe for us to know.

On June 27, 2006, Dan Baquet, the then editor of the Los Angeles Times, in justifying his own paper’s publication of the SWIFT program’s details, offered this rather revealing window on press arrogance:

” We (also) have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That’s the role of the press in our democracy. The founders of the nation actually gave us that role, and instructed us to follow it, no matter the cost.”

No matter the cost?   I wonder if  Baquet had actually read the debates  on the  drafting of the First Amendment?  He might be surprised to learn that the  recorded discussion in the House of Representatives in 1789 on Madison’s first draft of the Amendment  is rather unhelpful in gauging the ‘ Founders’ intentions’ and that there is no recorded debate at all on the issue in the Senate.   I wonder if he has read the vast body of jurisprudence since that time which makes it clear that there are absolute limits on the press’ supposed right to disclose classified materials to the public – particularly during war time.

What he might also discover is that there is certainly no fundamental right to reveal everything there is to know about the workings of counter-espionage and counter-terrorism in this country – even where it concerns protecting against the potential  for the abuse of privacy rights.

If the press wants to claim that its right to virtually legislate on national security issues is absolute, then surely the public has a similar right to demand from it the exact standards and policies by which it seeks to frame these decisions.  It is simply not enough for editors such as Keller and Baquet to claim arbitrary authority.   If the United States Congress and our judiciary have spent 220 years debating First Amendment rights, then why isn’t it appropriate for our self appointed fourth tier of government to be doing exactly the same thing? 

Maybe it is time for the press to examine, within itself and together with its reading public, the exact framework for the publication of classified documents whose disclosure could mean life or death for thousands of U.S. citizens.

Only then will we have a much more exact understanding of what the press actually means when it claims that it is taking action in ” matters of public interest ” and will be held accountable when it abuses its own standards.  And perhaps then American citizens, in whose service the press claims to be acting, will find a way to let our newspapermen know whether it considers those standards to be either admirably sustainable or else sadly deficient.

Should Israel Apologize To Turkey?

July 21, 2010

The Turks don’t seem to be losing any momentum in their international campaign to demonize Israel.

Not content with having withdrawn their ambassador to the country and using every international forum available to raise the specter of the Jewish  ” state terrorism” , Turkey is now demanding an apology for the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara on the morning May 30 when the Turkish registered boat sought to breach the Gaza blockade.

Now the Turks, having acknowledged that the Government of Israel recognizes that ” mistakes” were made in the attempt to interdict the passage of the ship, have made it clear that they will accept nothing short of a full apology for the eleven deaths which resulted from the confrontation.

Such an apology would be nothing  short of a diplomatic catastrophe for the Jewish state.  To acknowledge that the nation was somehow at fault for this commission of political theater, would be to essentially acknowledge guilt – yet there can be no question of Israel’s liability for the violence which broke out that morning , which was pre-planned and pre-meditated and designed to achieve exactly its result.    Israel would gain nothing but further opprobrium and it would make the likelihood of future passage of such violations of Israeli sovereignty even more certain.

The Turks know something about how to manage international campaigns of this order.  For 95 years , successive Turkish governments have denied the role of  the state in facilitating the deaths of close to one million Armenian Turkish citizens during the First World War.   No Turkish leader has been prepared to acknowledge this enormous crime against humanity and  for a very good reason.  To do so would open the country to compensatory claims and property right legal suits that could stretch on for generations.  Not only that, but the history of modern Turkey would  inevitably be colored by the  dark hues of racism and bigotry, almost impossible to erase from memory and reputation, as many Germans can today attest.

The difference between Turkey and Israel in these two instances is that Israel did not kill a million people in a pre-planned genocidal campaign and has not sought to deny the truth behind the incidents which occurred in May, 2010 – releasing video footage which shows clearly that the Navy Seals who boarded the boat,  were first brutally attacked  and fired their guns only to defend their lives.  The Turks, on the other hand, will not open their archives to reveal the truth about the events of 1915 –  which could not have been conducted in self defense – and insist in applying tremendous pressure on Western governments to resist Armenian pressure to declare those events a genocide.

Perhaps Israel then would be better off  not seeking to mollify the anti-Israel government of Turkey but in reversing its long held policy of not pushing for world wide recognition of the Armenian genocide.  Perhaps then, in the diplomatic shell game the Turks are now playing, they will begin to learn that they have exposure on an issue far more internationally damaging any ” crime ” the Israelis have ever committed.

Do the U.C. Regents Really Know What is Going On?

July 14, 2010

Several weeks ago, my friends Tammi Rossman- Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew at U.C. Santa Cruz and Leila Beckwith, Professor Emeritus at UCLA,  contacted me about a letter which they wished to address to Mark Yudof, President of U.C. California – the largest college system in the United States.    They expressed their outrage with the failure of Yudof and the U. C. Regents to adequately address the rising tide of anti-Semitism on  California college campuses and the apparent ease with which Muslim groups and other left wing organizations are able to demonize Jews and Israel in the most vile and inciting language.

In the letter, to which they asked me to append  my name and the endorsement of the American Freedom Alliance, they outlined some of the outrageous attacks to which Jewish students have been subjected over the past several years.  To wit:

” Over the last several years, Jewish students have been subjected to –  swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti; acts of physical and verbal aggression; speakers, films and exhibits that use anti-Semitic imagery and discourse; speakers that praise and encourage support for terrorist organizations that openly advocate murder against Israel and the Jewish people; the organized disruption of events sponsored by Jewish student groups; and most recently, the promotion of student senate resolutions for divestment that seek to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish State.”

The crowning incident of these macabre developments occurred when grotesque gestures and obscene epithets were hurled at Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, when he attempted to deliver an address to students at U.C. Irvine on February 8.  Eleven students , most of them belonging to the college’s Muslim Student Union, were arrested for civil disturbance.

The incident not only shone a kleig light on the problematic campus but also pointed to intense problems of oversight within the U.C. system itself.   The failure of the Board of Regents to adequately discipline  a campus which has witnessed repeated instances of  anti- semitic outbursts from Muslim students and has paid little attention to the growing climate of intolerance, was a making a farce of  the Regents’ professed multicultural ethos.

President Yudof’s answer was to institute a series of  campus climate committees –  groups of academics, campus administrators and lay leaders who might represent a broad multicultural approach to resolving campus problems.

Tammi and Leila’s letter attacked the Yudof plan as being out of touch with reality since it does not expressly deal with the most egregious form of bigotry and hatred –  the attack on Jews and supporters of Israel.  In other words, their contention was that the campus climate committees have not been convened to specifically address anti-Semitism – which accounts for 80% of the threatened violence and racial slurs on campus, but have been given wide purview for an investigation embracing all forms of racism.   The letter composed by Rossman- Benjamin, Beckwith and U.C. Irvine lecturer Roberta Seid, gave explicit recommendations for the course the U.C. President ( himself an observant Jew) , should undertake.

They are too numerous to enumerate here but fall under the rubric of one basic directive : Call this intolerance and bigotry for what it is –  a resurgence of the same anti-Semitism which has  its roots planted deeply in Western history.

Yudof, disappointingly, has not risen to this challenge.  In a letter, dated July 2 and addressed to the fourteen named leaders of organizations who signed the original June 28 letter( myself included)  he ducks the demand that the Board of Regents  expressly name anti-Semtism as the number one cause of disturbances  on our campuses.   Instead he urges that the multicultural campus climate change committees be given the opportunity to do their work and provide their recommendations for dealing with outbreaks of racism.

Fair enough.   I can take Yudof at his word and wait for his committees to do their work.   But we are  all, nevertheless, absolutely correct to be skeptical.   For multicultural panels throughout the West , such as the ones he has convened, have proved themselves regularly inept in addressing outbreaks of anti-Semitism, particularly from within the Muslim community.  Read almost any British newspaper these days ( or the reports that we present weekly from that country in The Western Word) and you will find evidence of multicultural city councils, police boards and government agencies  surrendering to the cultural sensitivities of Muslim communities, abjectly bowing to their supposed ‘multicultural’ and rights of free speech to express anger about  Israeli policies and against any Jew who supports them.

I rather like Sharon Rappeport’s response to Yudof’s letter.    She states that sensible monarchs learned centuries ago that  there is never a  substitute for first hand experience and every now and then it is good for the King to wander amongst his subjects to see for himself what is really going on in the streets of his towns and villages.

”  May I suggest then that you dress as do many of your ( observant Jewish)  students:  with a beard, kippa, and tzitzit–the strings hanging on the outside. Then attend a free speech “talk” by Abdul Malek at U.C. Irvine or Santa Cruz and discover what it feels like to be pointed at and screamed at by him and intimidated by his menacing bodyguards. Hang out at “the wall” during “Israel Apartheid Week”–choose any of the U.C. campuses–and try entering a discussion with the organizers of that hate fest, surrounded by banners equating Jews with Nazis. They will tell you straight out that they believe you should be killed.”

It seems inevitable that while the climate change committees slowly deliberate over the nature of  violent rhetoric that has engulfed California campuses in recent years,  actual violence and murder may not be too far away.

At that point, with blood  spilled on our campuses, it may be too late for Mark Yudof and his Board of Regents to officially recognize that, yes, indeed, we have an antisemitic problem that cannot be met by subscription to the usual multicultural pieties or soft touch policies.  They can only be stamped out by resort to the most draconian methods  – either the dissolution of campus organizations, expulsion of the offending students or direct charges of criminal behavior.

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